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Notable Oregonians: Robert Gray - Captain, Discoverer

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Robert Gray

Robert Gray, 1755-1806

Robert Gray was born in Tiverton, Rhode Island on May 10, 1755. He served in the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War and later worked for a Massachusetts trading company. In 1787 Captain Gray and Captain John Kendrick were sent out by their backers from Boston with a cargo of buttons, beads, blue cloth, and other items. Arriving on the Oregon coast 10 months later, they bargained with the natives for the pelts of sea otters. Sailing on to the Orient, they sold pelts and bought tea and possibly silk and spices. To complete the voyage, they sailed west to Boston, making Gray the first American merchant sailor to circumnavigate the globe.

 

Gray's most notable achievement came on his second voyage to the Oregon coast in 1792. He noted a flow of muddy water fanning from the shore and decided to explore his belief that it was the "Great River of the West." Gray crossed the treacherous sand bar and named the river after his ship, the "Columbia Rediviva." After a week or so of trading with the Indians, Gray left without investigating where the river led. Instead, he once again circumnavigated the globe. After his return to Boston in July 1793, he spent the remainder of his career commanding merchant vessels along the Atlantic Coast. He died in 1806 and was buried at sea.

 

Gray's discovery of the Columbia River gave the United States a strong claim to the Oregon Country. It encouraged other American fur traders, who used the Columbia River as a winter haven. By the end of the century these traders controlled the sea otter trade and the presence of the United States was firmly established in the Pacific Northwest, a presence on which the United States would later base its claim to possession.

 

(Sources: Oregon Blue Book, 1997-1998 | Encyclopedia Britannica | Dictionary of Oregon History) Revised 1/2013

 

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